Unpainted Paintings


Otto Muehl, “Untitled,” 1961. Wood, material, paint and cord on cardboard, 44 7/8 x 32 1/4 6 ¾”. Photo courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo Barbora Gerny.
Otto Muehl, “Untitled,” 1961. Wood, material, paint and cord on cardboard, 44 7/8 x 32 1/4 6 ¾”. Photo courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo Barbora Gerny.

T. J. Clark noted that “flatness was construed as a barrier put up against the viewer’s normal wish to enter a picture and dream.” This prohibition has become irrevocably ensnarled in the woolly history of reductive painting. However, two exposed threads worth tugging are the competing notions of the term “abstract,” long at odds with each other. As a verb, “abstract” implicates the known universe; as an adjective, it suggests a dimension divorced from it entirely. Much of what we know as “abstract” solicits the spatial even as it departs from it, yet other work avoids illusion even as its content is understood as abstract. In a truly remarkable exhibition called Unpainted Paintings, curator Alison Gingeras bypasses notions of abstraction that have one eye out the window and the other on the canvas, opting for work that severs that connection by way of marks made by urinating, crushing, melting, burning, sewing, staining, or otherwise subcontracting the content making to something other than the artist’s gentle and spatially biased fingertips.

A stunningly handsome and rigorously organized show, Unpainted Paintings subdivides its work into six subgroups—“Stained Sheets,” “Dirty Pictures,” “Materiologies,” “Knitted and Sewn,” “Meta Painting,” and “(Un)Painted Paintings”—within the rooms of Luxembourg and Dayan’s four-story townhouse. These categories are half-poetry and half-taxonomy, but Gingeras is allowed all the poetry she wants, given the intellectual precision of the show.

The “Stained Sheets” contingent starts off the show in the foyer, with an Andy Warhol “Piss Painting,” a surprisingly gentle canvas by Dan Colen, and a David Hammons work on paper that is stained with Kool Aid like a Morris Louis “Veil,” with only its ironically elegant gilt frame distinguishing it from the impulses of a Color Field soaker. An acrylic-stained section of carpet in the office hints at the flood to come, which by the second floor swells to a cascade of unanticipated but conceptually aligned gems. A grid of varnish-covered nails by German kinetic artist Gunther Uecker downshifts from the pop-playfulness of the work one floor below and might come across as dry, if it weren’t pumped with energy from a delightfully trashy carpet piece by Paul McCarthy beneath it, and from the wings by Raymond Hains’s poster-covered planks and Vienna Actionist Otto Muehl’s hemmed-in orgy of cloth and chords. The collisions between these works, and those throughout the exhibition, happen at intersections designated by Gingeras, generating thrills through eccentric combinations rather than through the stature of the individual artists.

Under the subheading of “Meta Painting,” (though one could argue all these are meta paintings) is a handsome, corroded polystyrene “Achrome” by Piero Manzoni, the understated starkness of which is complemented by an opulent but similarly monochromatic panel of pearl strands by contemporary artist Paola Pivi. A riotous work by Piotr Uklanski of mounted multi-colored crockery disrupts the possibility of these works settling into a formal stasis. The third floor features an equally lively collision between a Rosemarie Trockel, a Blinky Palermo, and a stainless steel piece by Sheila Hicks.

Though carefully sourced from around the globe and the postwar timeline, one senses Gingeras’s acute awareness of the European avant-garde that blistered across the Atlantic while the New York School blustered. Her emphasis on action and abuse borne of work reflecting the trauma of the postwar milieu is palpable. Viewing works by the Gutai (documented in video), Lucio Fontana, and Alberto Burri in the wake of the recent AbEx show at MoMA emphasizes the psychological scars left in the countries on whose land the war was fought. This leaves an acrid but complex aftertaste that one doesn’t often acquire from American abstraction.

In spite of this theme, there are also great examples from American artists, such as Lynda Benglis’s latex floor piece on the third floor, Richard Tuttle’s on the second, and a gold monochrome by Robert Rauschenberg that, in this context (a craggy Jean Dubuffet looms nearby), might have come straight from the tachist school.

If there is a criticism of the show, it’s the dearth of younger contemporary artists, though there are several on tap. Works by Anna Betbeze and Alex Hubbard feel a little perfunctory, though this is understandable in that many of the process-based artists today have either over-sanitized or moved away from two-dimensional work altogether. As it is, there is a strong thread throughout the show of wrestling (often literally in the case of the Gutai) with the history of the literal, the abstract, and that phantom of “flatness” described by Clark.

There is something subversive and vital in the way that the paintings in Unpainted Paintings reckon with the much-described yet nebulous “rupture” between the rolling end of modernism and the point at which art got sold at fairs next to the beach. Even more compelling is how well the show positions the “abstract” against the more familiar modes of spatially derived abstraction. Alison Gingeras has rolled up her sleeves and done the heavy lifting of pulling monographs and history books from the shelves, instead of simply going through her Rolodex like many contemporary curators, and it has paid off. Given the forty-some works in the show, it’s impossible to adequately describe each given limited space; however, it’s also unnecessary, as Gingeras has made Unpainted Paintings a show of great work, rather than a bunch of great work shoehorned into a show.


Shane McAdams


APR 2011

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